“Keep eating for America!” competitive food eater Hungry Todd Rungy says defiantly, over a basket of mostly-eaten tongue buns from the East Side King food trailer. He’s sitting next to Joshua Riehl and Dan Eppley, the film crew that has been busy filming and editing a documentary series about Rungy’s stomach-busting exploits.
The food-eater and his cohorts are at Shangri-la on East Sixth Street, where they’ve been shooting photos to promote Rungy’s upcoming competition — a charity team-relay eating competition on October 23.
“I’m trying to take myself a little more seriously,” said Rungy, 30. “The next competition I do, I’m going to do some serious training. Probably more serious than I’ve ever done. And I have every intention of winning. And not just beating a guy but also setting a record.”
Rungy is one of Austin’s most recognized competitive food eaters and undoubtedly the most patriotic. The bearded food warrior is the fourth-most followed competitive food eater in the U.S. on Twitter. His trademark getup — a T-shirt with an American flag on it, American-themed blue shorts and a worn red, white and blue headband — have seen their share of food-flying action.
Rungy estimates that he has competed in about 75 food-eating competitions in his lifetime, from “little competitions we put together against fat kids” in his high school cafeteria in Tyler, Texas, to more recent, publicized contests such as Chick-fil-A’s Austin City Nuggets, Home Slice Pizza’s pizza eating competition, and Austin food blogger MisoHungry’s Cupcake Smackdown. He said that he has won about 75 percent of the competitions he has been in, including winning first place in the Dobie Donut Challenge, Tootie’s Apple Pie Eating Contest and the Dog Almighty Hot Dog eating contest.
“It’s just in my nature,” Rungy said. “I was never good at these things everybody else can do. But I was good at eating. My mom would never have to say ‘Clear your plate’ because I always had seconds. It was a natural thing for me to overeat.”
Rungy started challenging his stomach in high school when he would go to CiCi’s Pizza to see how many slices he could eat. Pizza-slamming sessions at CiCi’s led to battles against food at other buffets, but Rungy said that he didn’t recognize his future in competitive food eating until he went to live in Detroit in 2006.
His uncle, who also lived in Detroit at the time, knew of his nephew’s propensity for eating a lot and challenged Rungy to a sandwich-eating competition at a local shop to see if he still had the magic. Rungy ended up winning, and it was that victory that encouraged him to continue on the path of the competitive food-eater.
Rungy moved to Austin in 2008, adopted the ‘Hungry’ label and began competing in occasional food challenges while working as a delivery driver. He developed his stomach-stretching techniques, practiced speed-eating and honed his competitive psyche during this time — skills that he still uses when he prepares for a food-eating contest.
“I like to get excited,” Rungy said in regards to his pre-competition exercises. “I kind of jump around sometimes, and I stretch my body a little bit. There’s some mental preparation. If people are around, I like to get them excited about America. There’s a little song I sing: ‘He’s American, He’s Todd Rungy, fighting for America, fighting to eat!’ Mentally, I just try to get in the zone.”
However, without the proper coaching or motivation, there wouldn’t have been a clear path to his eventual goal of having his own TV show or even becoming a recognized competitive food-eater in Austin, let alone being number one in America.
That’s when Riehl and Eppley come into the picture. Riehl, a radio-television-film senior from Detroit who had worked as a producer on the season premiere of PBS’ “Frontline” series, had just completed a documentary about capital punishment and was looking for a light-hearted project. He had heard about Rungy from a friend in Michigan, so he approached him about making a documentary series that focused not only on Rungy’s competitive food-eating career but also the day-to-day of a competitive food-eater.
Riehl and Eppley began following Rungy around with cameras, helping him promote his name and documenting various food-eating competitions and more personal moments of Rundy’s life, such as dates with women and time he spends with his family.
“For me, the challenge was to always be prepared,” Riehl said. “Always be rolling the camera, always be ready to shoot. Because who knows when the next crazy thing is going to happen? It’s crazy. I have 250 hours of magic — that’s the only way I can describe it. We’re pretty excited. I think its going to be a big thing.”
Austin events such as South by Southwest, where Rungy competed in food challenges and passed out Hungry Todd Rungy baseball cards, provided opportunities to create hype, and soon, people who Rungy had never met before were recognizing him.
“We were getting ready for a taco contest, and we ended up at the Liberty Bar doing shots of tequila,” Riehl said. “This total stranger came up and was like ‘Hey, are you a food eater?’ and [Rungy] said ‘Yeah,’ and the guy was like ‘Well, will you eat these Brussels sprouts?’ He had brought this giant thing of Brussels sprouts and put him on the spot. Back then, anytime anyone did that he was like ‘Yeah!’”
These days, Rungy is more selective when it comes to challenges. He’s still aiming to have his own TV show, or maybe compete in Nathan’s Famous Fourth of July International Hotdog Eating Contest, where renowned competitive food-eaters such as Joey Chestnut and Takeru Kobayashi have made names for themselves.
Competing at that level will require discipline, Rungy said, which means he has to stay dedicated to his training.
Back at the photo shoot at Shangri-La, Rungy looks down at the basket of tongue buns.
“I’m kind of full, anybody want this?” Rungy asks, pushing the basket of tongue buns away. He’s eaten six of them, not a lot compared to what he’s been known to put away, but then again, he has to watch what he eats when he’s training. “You can’t just eat anything you want,” he said.
Printed on Friday, September 2, 2011 as: Competitive eater challenges gut through Austin's food trailers.